Rich James: Lake GOP now playing with the big boys
Thursday, November 17, 2016 9:39 AM
MERRILLVILLE – Lake County’s traditionally weak Republican Party thinks it can now play with the big boys. County GOP Chairman Dan Dernulc and others think they did a heck of a job during the Nov. 8 election.
Not so fast. Republicans lost a state representative race they had won two years ago, but they did win a seat on the county board of commissioners, something the party hadn’t done in 20 years.
Lake County Republicans haven’t grown as much as they would like you to think. It’s not that they have made the gains on their own. That’s hardly the case. No, Big Brother in Indianapolis gets the credit for making it possible for Lake County Republicans to make some advances. They craftily drew districts to favor Republicans following the 2010 Census.
Take the case of three House districts. After redistricting, Democratic Rep. Mara Reardon narrowly defeated GOP attorney Bill Fine in the 12th House District. Two years later, Fine narrowly defeated Reardon. On Nov. 8, Reardon squeaked by Fine by just over 2,000 votes. There likely will be a repeat of the last three years come 2018.
And then there is District 19 in the heart of Lake County, where Crown Point Democrat Shelli VanDenburgh had won several terms. Because of redistricting, Republican Julie Olthoff narrowly won District 19 in 2014. In a rematch this year Olthoff edged VanDenburgh by about 300 votes. Yes, look for a repeat in 2018.
And then there is House District 15 that the GOP-controlled Legislature drew for Schererville’s Hal Slager. It may be the General Assembly’s best job of securing a solid Republican district in an area that used to lean Democratic. In 2012, Slager, a Schererville councilman, edged Democrat Thomas O’Donnell, a county councilman from Dyer, by less than 500 votes. Two years later, Jim Wieser, an attorney and longtime fixture in the Democratic hierarchy, took on Slager. Surprisingly, he was crushed by 5,000 votes.
So, with Donald Trump heading the GOP ticket this year, Democrats thought Slager was vulnerable. The party convinced O’Donnell to make another run at Slager, rather than focusing on running for county sheriff in 2018. O’Donnell improved on Wieser’s loss but still fell 2,000 votes short.
What happens in 2018 is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the best job of gerrymandering came in Lake County’s 2nd County Commissioner District. For a variety of political reasons, the new district took effect this year rather than rather than in 2012. The district shed heavily Democratic areas in north Crown Point and Merrillville and added strong GOP areas in Munster, Dyer and St. John.
Scheub, 81, had held the commissioner’s seat since being elected in 1996. Schererville Councilman Jerry Tippy defeated Scheub by more than 2,000 votes. Chances are it will be Tippy’s district for a long time to come.
What happens in the state representative districts is hard to determine. There won’t be a Donald Trump on the ballot.
Rich James has been writing about state and local government and politics for more than 30 years. He is a columnist for The Times of Northwest Indiana.